Driving without seat belt raises risk of ticket

October 01, 1997|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,SUN STAFF

Drivers and front-seat passengers in the habit of not wearing seat belts could be the subject of some costly police attention today.

For the first time, police in Maryland have the authority to pull over a car for a seat belt violation.

The new law is one of a handful of motor vehicle statutes that go into the books today.

Safety advocates believe the seat belt law will save about 50 lives each year -- the equivalent of one-twelfth of the 614 people who died in accidents on Maryland roads last year. Since 1986, police have been able to write seat belt tickets but only as secondary violations when cars are stopped for other reasons.

But even as a primary offense, a seat belt violation will not result in points being assessed on a driver's record -- only money, with a $25 fine to be paid by the driver for each violation.

"This is something we'll be on the lookout for," said Col. David B. Mitchell, state police superintendent. "It won't be passively enforced."

The new law is intended to boost seat belt use that, despite public education campaigns, has not significantly increased in the 1990s.

Surveys have shown that about 70 percent of Maryland drivers and front-seat passengers use them.

By making it a primary offense, officials hope to raise that number to 83 percent -- a number based on the experience of the dozen other states with similar laws.

If everyone used a seat belt, death and injury rates reportedly would plunge.

Of the 289 people who died in traffic accidents during the first six months of this year, 199 were not wearing seat belts. If all had worn them, 110 victims would probably still be alive, state officials estimated.

"The research is clear across the country -- seat belts save lives," Gov. Parris N. Glendening said yesterday at a State House ceremony beginning the new law. "That's 110 people who died needlessly."

But just how aggressively police will enforce the law remains to be seen.

In most jurisdictions, it will be left to the discretion of individual officers, whose interest levels will probably vary.

In Baltimore County, for instance, no enforcement effort has been planned. The emphasis has been put on educating the general public, not on writing tickets, a spokesman said.

"I'm sure some officers who are up on the seat belt law and feel strongly about it will be writing tickets," said Officer William Naff, the Baltimore County Police Department's traffic safety coordinator.

Last year, police across the state wrote 123,777 citations for seat belt and child safety seat violations.

Opponents of the seat-belt law claimed police might use it to dTC selectively harass motorists, particularly minorities.

But supporters said the law is no different from any other motor vehicle requirement -- those who wear seat belts won't be stopped.

"This law is not about being punitive or about the harassment [by] police," said Del. Joanne C. Benson, a Prince George's County Democrat. "I can tell you that police don't need this law to harass someone."

Beginning today, Maryland drivers are also required to turn on their headlights when using their windshield wipers.

The law is intended to make vehicles more visible in inclement weather. It is a secondary offense that, like the seat belt law, carries a $25 fine.

Del. Betty Workman, an Allegany County Democrat and House sponsor of the headlights bill, said the measure made sense to motorists even in her conservative Western Maryland district, where new laws are about as welcome as gypsy moths.

"There's so much traffic on the road today, and the cars move so fast, anything we can do to make people more alert is really important," Workman said.

Car manufacturers are increasingly offering headlights that turn on automatically, or at least when wipers are used, as an option on vehicles. Meanwhile, police are not expected to enforce the wiper requirement as aggressively as the seat belt law.

"When it rains, our officers become occupied with accident calls," said Lt. Scott Pittaway, commander of the Anne Arundel County Police Department's traffic safety section. "I think our officers are more in tune with enforcing the seat belt law."

Drivers who run red lights should also beware -- eventually. A statute giving police authority to install cameras at intersections to catch red-light violations also becomes effective today. But the jurisdiction closest to installing such a system isn't expected to have cameras in place until Jan. 1, at the earliest.

"There are a lot of variables," said Lt. Glenn Hansen, commander of research and planning for the Howard County Police Department, which lobbied for the law. "We may not even make that deadline."

Once the system is in place, car owners (identified by license plates) will be subject to a $75 fine -- but not points on their records -- when their vehicles are caught on film.

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